Playoff race breakdown: Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors chase West's top seed
The Houston Rockets come out of the All-Star break with a one-game lead in the loss column over the Golden State Warriors for the top seed in the Western Conference. The Rockets have already won the tiebreaker, thanks to two wins in the three head-to-head meetings (with none remaining).
So, can the Rockets hold onto the top seed and have *home-court advantage throughout the playoffs? Lets break it down …
* Assuming the West’s No. 1 seed finishes with a better record than the East’s No. 1 seed.
Sometimes, a team’s record can be deceiving. For instance, thanks to some bad luck in close games, the Dallas Mavericks are better than their record. They’re 18-40 with the point differential of a team that’s 24-34. The Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings, teams that have lost a lot of blowouts, are on the other end of the spectrum, with point differentials that say they should have 12 wins instead of 18.
The point differentials of the Rockets and Warriors pretty closely match their records. Both teams have 44 wins and a point differential that says they should have 45.
But if you take their records and their point differentials and project them over the final seven weeks of the season (ignoring strength of schedule), the Rockets would finish with a record of 64-18 and the Warriors would finish with a record of 62-20.
The Rockets went into the break with a 10-game winning streak and a 17-2 record over the last six weeks, ranking third offensively and seventh defensively over that stretch. Over the same six weeks, the Warriors had the league’s best offense, but went 12-6 and ranked 16th defensively.
The Rockets are 28-1 with Chris Paul, James Harden and Clint Capela. Both Harden and Luc Mbah a Moute (Houston’s best defender) missed their loss to the Warriors (who were playing without Kevin Durant) on Jan. 4.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr has made it clear that his team was fatigued over the last few weeks and needed the All-Star break. Time will tell if he was right, or if the wear and tear of three straight trips to The Finals affects their defense going forward.
Both of these teams can beat any other team in the league. In fact, in games played between the 18 teams that are currently over .500, the Warriors (25-10) and Rockets (22-9) have the two best records.
But those games account for 19 of their 27 losses. So schedule strength matters going forward. And going forward, the Warriors have an easier schedule than the Rockets.
The champs will play only 14 of their final 24 games against teams that currently have winning records. The Rockets play 18 of their final 25 games, including 13 of their next 14, against that group.
Outside Houston and Golden State, there are five teams that are at least 10 games over .500. The Rockets have twice as many games remaining against those five teams (six) as the Warriors do (three).
The Rockets also have a tougher schedule in regard to rest. They have only two remaining games where they’ll have a rest advantage (where they didn’t play the day before, but their opponent did), but five remaining games, including Monday’s visit to Utah, where they’ll be at a disadvantage (playing the second game of a back-to-back against an opponent that didn’t play the day before). The Warriors’ schedule is even in that regard (four games of each).
The Rockets’ first two post-break games —vs. Minnesota and at Denver — end a stretch where they’re playing eight of nine against the league’s bottom 10 defenses. Going forward, they have more games than the Warriors against both top-10 defenses and top-10 offenses.
Put it all together and the Warriors have the easiest remaining schedule in the Western Conference, while the Rockets have the seventh toughest. That could be the difference in regard to home-court advantage in a potential conference finals matchup.
As noted above, the Rockets have the tiebreaker, having won the head-to-head series, 2-1.
Looking across at the Eastern Conference, the 41-16 Toronto Raptors are the only team with a legit chance of matching the record of either Houston or Golden State to have home-court advantage in The Finals.
The Rockets lost their first meeting with the Raptors (in Houston) and will play them again in Toronto on March 9. If the Rockets were to win that game, they’d have a big advantage for the next Finals tiebreaker: record vs. the opposite conference.
The Warriors won both of their meetings with the Raptors and would have the tiebreaker should they finish with the same record as Toronto.
Does it matter?
If the Rockets had home-court advantage in the Western Conference finals, would they be a favorite over the defending champs? If the Warriors had home-court advantage, would they be a lock for their fourth straight trip to The Finals?
The answer to both questions is “not necessarily,” because we’re talking about the two best road teams in the league. The Rockets and Warriors have outscored their opponents by 8.5 and 8.3 points per 100 possessions, respectively, on the road. Those are the league’s two best road point differentials by a wide margin. Both the Rockets and Warriors have won a game in the other team’s building this season. The Rockets won at Golden State on opening night and the Warriors won in Houston on Jan. 4.
The Warriors have been the stronger team at home (plus-11.9 points per 100 possessions vs. plus-8.7), but home success in the regular season doesn’t necessarily portend the same in the playoffs. The team with the best home record of the last 20 years — the 2015-16 Spurs, who went 40-1 at the AT&T Center — lost two of its three home games (to Oklahoma City) in the 2016 conference semifinals. That same season, the Warriors went 39-2 at Oracle Arena in the regular season and became the first team since 1978 to lose Game 7 of The Finals at home.
In three postseasons under Steve Kerr, the Warriors are 18-10 on the road and have won at least one road game in all 12 series they’ve played. In those same three postseasons, the Rockets are 4-12 on the road.
Both teams will begin their post-break schedule on national TV against Western Conference teams with winning records. The Warriors will host the LA Clippers on Thursday (10:30 p.m. ET), the second game of TNT’s double-header. The Rockets will host the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday (8 p.m. ET), the first game of ESPN’s double-header.
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